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Interview Mushroom grower

March 2, 2020

Supplying precisely what customers want: that is the motto of the innovative German family-run Rheinische Pilz-Zentrale (RPZ). The continued growth of the company goes to prove the success of this strategy. German consumers highly value the sustainably and locally grown mushrooms, which are the perfect fit with a healthy lifestyle.

In this article Marco Deckers tells us why Pheinische Pilz-Zentrale is proud of their regionally produced mushrooms.

Mushrooms BVB Substrates

When you enter the meeting room, you immediately notice a large aerial photograph of the company in Geldern. In the middle of the photo is the house and the modest barn where the mushroom adventure of father Hans Deckers all started in the early 1970s. Marco Deckers, who forms the management board together with father Hans and brother Patrick, explains how the company gradually grew. ‘Until 1970 my father had a mixed farm. The government encouraged small farms in the region to start growing mushrooms. This led to each village having a few mushroom growers. These growers organised their sales jointly. That set-up ultimately resulted in our mushroom growing and sales organisation RPZ, which employs around 650 people.

Sustainable production

The very first barn is now surrounded by a packing shed and dozens of growing rooms, some equipped with solar panels. On an adjacent meadow, the construction of an innovative complex with tilting beds in full swing (see box). ‘Sustainable production is of great value to us and to our customers. That’s why we are investing. Our company generates about half of the power its uses sustainably. Our combined heat and power unit also contributes to the sustainability of growing, just like the LED lighting and energy efficient cooling.’

One stop shop

In addition to the mushrooms grown at the site in Geldern, RPZ also sells the yields of a further nine local growers. The group also includes the production and sales organisation Rhein-Neckar-Pilze in Wurstadt, 300 kilometres further south in the Hesse region. To give an idea of how many mushrooms they produce: every week, 380 to 400 Polish pickers harvest about 400,000 kilos of white and chestnut mushrooms from their own growing rooms. In addition, a range of speciality mushrooms such as oyster mushrooms, shiitake, chanterelles, king oyster mushrooms, porcini and wild forest mushrooms complete the package. RPZ packs and delivers everything according to the customer’s specifications. It’s virtually a one stop shop for the supermarket buyer, one of the market principles of RPZ.

Growing demand for organic products

Deckers also has a precise picture of the other requirements of the large supermarket chains – from classic retailers to discount retailers. He regularly meets buyers or invites fruit and vegetable category managers to visit the family business, to help increase their sense of involvement in the product ‘Supermarkets value the fact that we grow our mushrooms locally. They also value sustainably and the fact that we offer food safety guarantees. These all feature high on the list of what consumers find important. Edeka supermarket displays a photo of our family in the vegetable section for good reason.

Consumers are happy to pay a few cents more for German produce, and a few more on top of that for locally produced.’ Another tendency Deckers has noticed in recent years is the sharply rising demand for organic mushrooms. ‘Our share of EKO-certified mushrooms grew from 5% to 10% in one year. These mushrooms are grown, packed and stored separately. The greater demand for organic produce is partly the effect of the Swedish climate change warrior Greta Thunberg. Climate change has shocked people, encouraging them to choose a more sustainable and healty lifestyile. Locally grown organic mushrooms fit
that lifestyle.’

Good raw materials are essential

The organic mushroom share could have grown even faster if sufficient raw materials had been available. ‘Organically grown straw is the basis of compost. As it’s difficult to get hold of, it restricted expansion. In addition, the casing soil used must also comply with the BIO-quality label.’ According to Deckers, these raw materials are vital for every successful mushroom crop. RPZ therefore attaches great value to good relationships not only with buyers, but also with suppliers.

The close ties with BVB Substrates – Euroveen, one of the regular casing soil suppliers, date back more than 20 years. Deckers: ‘The brand is a loyal and professional supplier that takes a customer-oriented approach. If we have any questions about the casing, something gets done immediately. And the physical distance is also small, as the production site is only 20 kilometres away. The company has invested heavily in product improvement over the past year. For example, in a roofed storage area, which guarantees the quality and food safety of raw materials. And BVB Substrates also contributes to the reliability of the casing by arranging transport in its own fleet of clean trailers. This level of quality and delivery reliability is crucial for us.’

Tilting beds and energy-efficient equipment

The new production site in Geldern is scheduled for completion this year. The production facility certainly features something new: tilting beds. Manager Rob van Dieten is supervising the construction project. He explains the concept behind the tilting beds. ‘Each bed is divided in half lengthwise. Working from the middle, the pickers can pull one half – which is slightly wider than the usual bed width – towards them. The picker can then tilt the bed to a 45-degree angle, which is an improvement in ergonomic terms. The angle makes picking not only easier, but also faster as the picker can use both hands to harvest the mushrooms.’